Thursday, October 11, 2007

The need for speed

Received an email today from a regular reader, Bruce Peter, that's good enough to post in its entirety:
I'm having a discussion on a message board about which teams are, collectively, fast. It was after watching the Edmonton/Minnesota game last night... Minny made Edmonton look like turtles, and I thought Edmonton looked incredibly quick in their first game or two that I saw them. I know you're a stat guy, and there are know statistical measurements for this characteristic, but you also watch a lot of hockey. Who are some teams that you've seen that's collective team speed stands out, for good and bad?

Minny with guys like Gaborik, Walz, Bouchard, Johnsson, Rolston, and on and on stand out to me as probably the fastest. It's also something they've gone for right from their expansion draft to their current lineup. This friend of mine, who is a Colorado fan, was worried by my comments because he feels the Avalanche collectively lack speed.

A lot was made of team speed in the first year or so of the "new NHL", and it seems to have faded a bit with Anaheim winning the Cup, despite the fact they had very good skaters as well as bruisers (their first and thrid lines in particular, and of course Scott Niedermeyer). Has it gone from being "the most important skill" in the new NHL to something less, or is it just so readily accepted that the difference between teams is less pronounced as a result? As in, has every team adjusted by now to a speedier league?
I think it's still very, very important — but thankfully the 'new NHL' overtures have died down. And, no, not every team has adjusted.

Bruce is right about the Wild. Jacques Lemaire's wanted a fast team from Day 1, and only now are some of the kids they drafted three/four years ago rounding into form. I've been talking about Brent Burns quite a bit already this season, as for a 6-foot-4 defenceman, he can wheel.

And team speed starts on the blue line. Minnesota's also got Kim Johnsson, Petteri Nummelin and Nick Schultz who can skate, and those guys go a long way toward their success playing the trap through the neutral zone. Johnsson and Schultz were two of the top players in the league in even strength goals against per minute on the ice last season.

Anaheim? The Ducks lose a lot of their team speed without Niedermayer; they were more of a hybrid team, anyway, with a few speedsters like McDonald, Selanne, etc., joining a pile of lugs up front.

Other fast teams? I'd say Buffalo, Nashville, Ottawa, Washington (Poti makes a big difference there) and maybe even LA now (aside from Blake, of course).

I'm curious what others think: Do you still have to build with speed in order to succeed?


At 2:48 p.m., October 11, 2007, Anonymous PPP said...

Speed definitely builds from the back. Just from watching the games in which the Leafs look like they can skate with the Sabres and sens it usually comes down to their forecheck being very effective while their D is relatively unmolested.

At 3:25 p.m., October 11, 2007, Blogger saskhab said...

Part of me was wondering who all might not be up to speed as well as the particularily mobile clubs. You mention Anaheim as losing a step because of Niedermeyer... I'm trying to think of teams in particular that have a noticeable lack of speed, or are below advantage.

I know one other advantage the Wild have is that a guy like Gaborik, and also Bouchard, can do so much at top speed.

At 3:43 p.m., October 11, 2007, Anonymous beingbobbyorr said...

I'm very dubious about fans subjectively judging skating speed. What is it they're really taking note of?

A guy's straight-away-unimpeded Eric Heiden velocity? That's not so important in hockey.

His ability to change directions? The stop-n-start-on-a-dime looks impressive, but a well-executed power turn can do the same thing in time while using more space (if it's available) but with less energy wasted.

Are they watching a small guy whose legs churn like a motor and assuming he's faster than the big guy who takes longer strides and appears to be an oaf? Jason Allison was accused of being the later during his brief tenure with the LA Kings. But a conversation with King scout Grant Sonier got me a look-see at the laser-based measurements done on the first day of the 2002 Kings training camp, and Allison was slightly better than the median. Although some big guys look like a lumbering lug, they cover a lot of ground with each stride.

Lesson learned: human perception isn't always a great measuring tool.

At 4:18 p.m., October 11, 2007, Anonymous Numbers Guy said...

Speed is just an input to productivity. Tell me how many points a guy will put on the board, not how fast he can blow by the boards without putting the puck in the net. Clearly, all other things being equal, it's better to be fast, but just as clearly, all other things being equal, it's much better to point.

The Hall is full of slow guys who can score.

At 4:19 p.m., October 11, 2007, Blogger Paul Nicholson said...

I really think you have it James: it is all about balance and the Ducks proved that last year.

The Preds had a very fast team last year, as did many others, but flamed out early in the playoffs. You have to have a few tough, physical, bruising lines to make it in the playoffs.

As a horrible generalization: Speed and flash make it through the regular season. Defense and strength get you through the playoffs.

BTW: This isn't just true in hockey. It follows for basketball and other sports too. The Suns will never do well in the playoffs until they get a little rougher edge on them, while teams like the Spurs and Pistons (of a few years ago) are dominant based on a hybrid/balanced team that has both elements.

At 4:25 p.m., October 11, 2007, Blogger mike w said...

Be careful of what you see. Last night in Minnesota was an example: the Wild's forwards seems faster because of having the lead and forcing turnovers, especially when Oilers D were making ill-advised pinches and getting caught.

At 4:44 p.m., October 11, 2007, Anonymous David Johnson said...

I'm curious what others think: Do you still have to build with speed in order to succeed?

I don't think there is necessarily one formula for success. I think when it comes to winning a Stanley Cup it often comes down to getting lucky in who you meet in the playoffs.

On route to their Stanley Cup the Ducks played Minnesota, Vancouver, Detroit and Ottawa. The Ducks had a great defensive line and a pair of great defensemen. The teams they played mostly depended on one line for offense. Shut down Gaborik and you shut down the Wild's offense. Shut down the Sedins and you shut down the Canucks offense. Shutdown Alfredsson-Spezza-Heatley and you shut down most of the Senators offense. Detroit gave them the most trouble probably had the most depth of scoring and balance across lines. Would the Ducks had as easy of a time if they played Nashville in round one and San Jose in round two instead of Minnesota and Vancouver or Buffalo in the cup instead of Ottawa?

For Ottawa, they played the Penguins, New Jersey and Buffalo in their run through the eastern conference. None of those teams would be considered big or physical. The Penguins had some success when Gary Roberts (2g, 2a, even) was on the ice crashing and banging but didn't have enough players doing that. New Jersey plays a passive game, not a physical aggressive one, and the Sabres were a small team. These were probably best case matchups for the Senators but we know what happened to them once they met the Ducks, a physical, aggressive, in your face team. For years the Senators have struggled against teams like that (namely the Leafs) so it was nothing new really.

I'd bet if you went back and looked at every Cup winning team they had some luck in both who they played and in the health department. When Tampa won they cup they hardly had any injuries during the regular season or the playoffs, played in the easiest division allowing them to get the top seed in the east, and they played the Islanders (an 8th seed), Canadiens (a 7th seed), Philadelphia (a beat up 3rd seed) and Calgary (a 6th seed). It is really hard to envision an easier route to the cup.

I think it is really difficult, if not impossible to build a team that can win against every other type of team. Maybe some of those stacked Detroit teams in the 1990's would qualify but teams like that aren't going to happen anymore in the cap and unrestricted free agency at 25 era.

At 5:05 p.m., October 11, 2007, Anonymous Truth Serum said...

I watched the Wild play the Jackets last Saturday and though it was via TV, the Wild did look very fast. I would call the CBJ and middle-of-the road team in terms of speed and the Wild looked as if they were traveling in a faster gear for most of the game.

You can say what you want about the other components of a winning team, but if you cannot match up against a faster opponent, than you are already at a disadvantage that is very difficult to overcome. You can't clutch and grab anymore and your thugs can only do so much.

At 5:52 p.m., October 11, 2007, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

On route to their Stanley Cup the Ducks played Minnesota, Vancouver, Detroit and Ottawa. The Ducks had a great defensive line and a pair of great defensemen. The teams they played mostly depended on one line for offense.

DJ--your larger point about opponent luck is fine, but it's a bit sketchy to retrospectively decide it was a lucky matchup.

Sure, MIN / VAN / OTT were top-line-heavy, but they beat out a lot of good teams in the regular season and playoffs doing exactly that. I guess all I'm saying is that going into the the playoffs, if you said that the Ducks would get to play the best four regulation teams since Christmas, I don't know who in Anaheim would be saying "Oh lucky us."

The fact that things worked out is revealing, sure, but you're applying a logic that doesn't say much more than that each cup winner is lucky mainly because they played teams that ended up losing.

At 7:04 p.m., October 11, 2007, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Has it gone from being "the most important skill" in the new NHL to something less, or is it just so readily accepted that the difference between teams is less pronounced as a result?

I don't know about speed, but I don't see how anyone could disagree that skating ability is the single most important aspect of being a good hockey player. As for Minny, no one will look fast against them. They seem to have four bodies lined up across every line on the ice.

At 10:25 p.m., October 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Puck is always the fastest so I would prefer skills first. Puck doesn't have lungs, either.

As for Tom Poti vs. Rob Blake I would take Blake who used to very fast with his long, powerful stride. Now he is slower but still beats Poti who has always been average speedwise.

At 2:18 a.m., October 12, 2007, Anonymous David Johnson said...

Earl: The Ducks were a good team playing great hockey so it is quite possible that they would have beaten anyone and certainly luck wasn't the only, or main, factor in their success, but it played a role. What if they had played San Jose and Nashville and it took 6 games to beat both of them instead of 5 games against Minnesota and Vancouver. Might they have been a bit more fatigued? Might that have been enough for Detroit to pull out a series win, or at least push the series to 7 games? We don't know for sure but I definitely believe matchups play a role in how the playoffs play out.

At 9:13 a.m., October 12, 2007, Blogger Adam C said...

Matchups play a role, for sure, but it's all too easy to use hindsight to say the matchups were favourable. If the Ducks had swept Nashville and gone on to beat the Sharks in five, would we be saying that they were lucky to avoid a top-notch goalie like Luongo, or to avoid the league's best defense - and excellent power play - in Minnesota? In last year's West, the teams were all very good (with the exception of Calgary, perhaps) and there were no obviously easy matchups.

At 10:28 a.m., October 12, 2007, Blogger Chemmy said...

I think David Johnson is saying that Anaheim got some very favorable matchups for their talent, not that their opponents were easy.

At 2:27 p.m., October 12, 2007, Anonymous David Johnson said...

And for the record, this is not hindsight.

This is what I wrote prior to the second round series against Vancouver.

"But, they fairly easily defeated Minnesota and I think should relatively easily defeat the Canucks. The reason is, those two teams are ideal match ups for the Ducks. With a high dependence on just a few defensemen I think they are better suited to play against one line teams like the Wild and Canucks than deep, talented teams like Nashville, San Jose or Detroit."

They ended up beating Detroit but if Detroit won the game 5 overtime game in which they outplayed the Ducks (out shot them 37-26) but Giguere stole the series probably goes the other way.

And this is what I wrote before the Stanley Cup finals.

"I think dealing the Ducks with their aggressive, physical play, something the Senators have not faced these playoffs, will be a huge challenge for Ottawa in this series."

At 3:49 p.m., October 12, 2007, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

Is there a historical series where somebody won an unfortunate matchup then?


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